Aging dams could be next US infrastructure emergency

Aging dams could be next US infrastructure emergency
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With thousands of aging dams in the U.S. now considered obsolete, policymakers should consider removing unnecessary and unsafe dams, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP).

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The report says dam infrastructure has suffered from the same chronic underinvestment that has led to the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and airports.

The result has caused many of the country’s nearly 2 million dams to be deemed costly and deficient, and CAP is hoisting a red flag about the issue before it reaches a crisis level. 

“We’re hearing a lot about infrastructure these days, and the need to deal with crumbling infrastructure,” David Hayes, a senior fellow at CAP, said during a panel discussion on Tuesday. “And guess what? That applies to our dams as well.”

But instead of urging policymakers to fix every aging dam across the country, CAP is advocating for the removal of certain structures on a case-by-case basis.

“We need to be smart about which ones we keep and how we maximize their use,” Hayes said.

By 2020, at least 65 percent of dams will be more than 50 years old and 27 percent will be more than 80 years old, according to CAP. Thirty-one percent of dams are classified as a “significant” or “high” hazard, with less than half of those having an emergency action plan.

Dams were built largely for economic purposes, with benefits that include flood and debris control, water storage and irrigation, hydropower, navigation and recreation.

“Americans embraced and celebrated dams as good and necessary structures. We built dams, and lots of them,” Hayes said. “Over time, skepticism began to creep in about whether perhaps we went too far. We also started to realize how destructive dams could be to the environment.”

Because most dams were built before the 1980s, the need and benefits of the structures have either diminished or no longer exist thanks to new technologies.

There has also been increased attention on the potential environmental impacts of dams, such as fragmented river and water flows, obstructed fish movement and the collapse of fish stocks.

“Not all dams are created equal,” said Mike Connor, deputy secretary of the Interior Department. 

And from a cost perspective, Hayes suggested that the price tag for maintaining an obsolete dam may outweigh the cost of removing the structure.

The CAP report is pressing policymakers to address the issue by incentivizing the removal of unnecessary dams, while modernizing the structures that are considered beneficial and necessary.

“Infrastructure problems often do not get the attention and funding that they deserve until they reach the level of disaster,” wrote Jenny Rowland, research and advocacy associate for CAP’s public lands project.

“Rather than jumping from crisis to crisis, policymakers should address America’s dam infrastructure problem before the safety risks, costs, and environmental damage become worse than they already are.”